A blast of Arctic air that has plunged temperatures to –40 C or lower in some areas of Alberta over the past few days may have ended a stretch of unusually mild January weather in the province — but won't last long, Environment Canada says.
The cold front rolled in last Thursday, bringing temperatures that dipped to lows of –16 C in Calgary, –21 in Edmonton and –40 or lower in some areas of the province like Fort Chipewyan. And that's not counting the wind chill.
But the icy blast also blew in some scenes of unusual beauty, at least in Calgary and area, as snow lightly powdered the streets and spectacular rime ice covered every tree and bush.
Terri Lang, a meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, told CBC last February that rime ice forms when liquid particles in the air freeze as they touch something solid — like a tree branch, for example.
"It usually forms when there is a lot of low cloud, foggy conditions. You can see the moisture particles in the air," Lang said.
However, the city won't look like a snow globe for long. Environment Canada meteorologist Dan Kulak says this cold snap should ease its icy claws on the province in about a week.
"[This winter] has been very mild compared to what you would expect from the long-term averages, but it's obviously taken a bit of a change toward more wintry-like temperatures in the last couple days here," Kulak told CBC News on Monday.
"But if you think it's cold now, think about what it was like last year, when we had five consecutive days in Calgary where the temperatures did not get above –20."
A relative term
During a typical January in Calgary, the daytime high hovers a few degrees below freezing — usually around –3 C, Kulak said.
On Monday afternoon, Calgary was sitting at –13 C, but temperatures are expected to rebound as February begins next week.
"As we move into the early part of February, [we are] actually expecting a return back toward something more typical of this time of the year, which should be daytime highs a few degrees below zero," he said.
And though this current gust of chillier weather is colder than January's daytime averages by about 10 degrees, he said that it is still not the kind of punishing cold stretch we often see throughout the season.
"'Cold snap' is a relative term … we've certainly seen a lot worse," Kulak said.
"[And] usually, the only time that you're actually near the average is when you're either getting warming from some cold, or you're cooling from the warm. You're very rarely actually near the average for any length of time."
Arctic air affecting 'just about everybody' in Alberta
The drop in temperature has been reflected across Alberta in the last few days, Kulak said.
It is cooler by a few degrees in the northern parts of the province, sitting around –18 C in Edmonton and Red Deer on Monday afternoon, and a bit milder in the south, around –12 C in Lethbridge.
"It's really a bit of a spread across the southern part of the province, but in general we've had a fairly mild winter across the area, and just about everybody now has gotten into the Arctic air."
Alberta's milder winter took climatologists by surprise; a cold October seemed to promise a foreboding winter that has yet to materialize, Kulak said.
Furthermore, La Niña, a complex weather pattern that generally leads to cold and snowy winters, led climatologists to predict the province would be walloped by a "winter from hell."
"It's been clearly much less brutal than we thought. We were thinking it was going to be the layered-up look with balaclavas and booster cables," Environment Canada's Dave Phillips told CBC Edmonton earlier this month.
According to Kulak, the season in Alberta is unpredictable by nature — and trying to prepare for just about anything is the safest bet.
"Winter is basically a season of swings … so you really have to be prepared for just about everything wintry all winter, whether it be a nice day today and a cold day coming up," he said.